Wellington Saints guards Lindsay Tait and Corey Webster will be fit for Friday's NBL semifinal against the Nelson Giants despite missing yesterday's win over the Waikato Pistons in Hamilton.
The second-placed Saints (12 wins, six losses) will enter the Final Four full of confidence after the 83-82 triumph extended their winning streak to four.
Izayah Mauriohooho-Le'afa (12 points) and Jordan Mills (nine) both saw significant court-time in the absence of Tait (hamstring) and Webster (ribs).
"They both could have played," said Saints coach Shane Heal.
"But with niggles at this time of the year, the last thing they need is an extra game whereas the other guys probably needed a bit more time together. They'll go in really fresh at the weekend so hopefully it turns out well for us."
With 24 seconds on the clock, Mauriohooho-Le'afa, the Tall Blacks point guard who is still attending St Pat's Town, hit the game-winning shot, calmly swishing a pull-up jumper from the baseline.
Saints centre Bryan Davis produced a big block on speedy guard Corin Henry, but the Pistons got another shot when an in-bounding Dion Prewster was called for a five second violation.
Karl Noyer's desperation heave rimmed out.
"To come on the road without Corey and LT, to have other guys step up and beat a team that was at full strength - they were pretty desperate to win even though there was nothing on the line," Heal said.
"I thought Izayah played a great game. I thought his poise was really good, his decision making was great, his defence was really good on Corin Henry as well. His quickness certainly helped us. This experience is going to help him play a valuable role for us next weekend."
Versatile forward Brandon Bowman paced the Saints with 20 points, eight rebounds and five assists, while Prewster added 13 points and BJ Anthony 12.
Nelson finished third with an 11-7 record and the Saints will take some confidence from beating them twice in the regular season.
"But they're a very good team, they're well coached," Heal said.
"And with Mika Vukona back in the lineup, two of the best Americans in the competition [Josh Pace and Jamal Boykin], Phill Jones and two good guards [Josh Bloxham and Brook Ruscoe], there's a lot of quality. We'll certainly be ready for them but we've got a lot of respect for what they do as well."
League leaders Hawke's Bay (15-3) will play the defending champion Southland Sharks (10-8) in Friday's other semifinal at Wellington's TSB Bank Arena, which will also host Saturday's grand final.
"Obviously we would have liked to have had more games with the Americans and more games with BJ, there's no doubt they're a little bit underdone," Heal said.
"But there's never a perfect world and I think we're in a good position to put our best foot forward on Friday."
- The Dominion Post
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